Feature
Seeds of Change: Farmer Finds Niche
In part two of our three-part series about Texas farm families, we meet a Texas farmer whose vineyards show grape promise

As harvest time nears, Cliff Bingham rigorously inspects his grapes.
Jody Horton

It’s mid-August, and harvest could be any day now—even today. Cliff Bingham has called viticultural consultant Bobby Cox to the vineyard for an inspection. They walk into a row of Vermentino. The grapes are heavy and full on the vine, and the men are giddy like children. They rush from one section to the other and pull back leaves to inspect the fruit. Bobby occasionally bursts into a sudden peal of laughter from pure joy.

Cliff plucks a grape and rolls it on his palm to separate the meat, seed and skin. He explains that each can be studied to determine ripeness. “When the seed is brown, the grape has reached maturity, and it tastes nutty,” Cliff says, then crunches a seed. 

Bobby squeezes the juice from one grape onto the end of a small metal cylindrical instrument called a refractometer. He holds this up to the sun and looks through an eyepiece at the other end. Sugar level, counted in Brix, is measured by the angle of refraction of light passing through the juice. After a few tests it’s determined that sugars are just under the optimum threshold along the row. “Just a few more days,” Bobby concludes.

Here on the High Plains near Meadow, 30 miles southwest of Lubbock, farming is about as good as it gets in Texas. Semi-arid and 3,333 feet above sea level, the growing season is less brutal than in many other regions in the state. Mornings are often cool, and temperatures can dip into the low 60s, even in August. Low humidity also means little possibility of fungus for crops and a reduced chance of insect infestation. But the lifeblood of the region is the Ogallala Aquifer—a vast underground water table that stretches from here to South Dakota and supplies about 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States.

Editor’s Note

This is the second in a three-part series on redefining the family farm for the declining number of Texans who choose to make their living off the land. Family farming, in the span of just a few generations, has gone from the dominant way of life to one that has nearly vanished. In this special series, “Seeds of Change—Texas Family Farms,” we meet three Texas farmers whose stories offer a glimpse of what it takes to run a family farm in 21st-century Texas.

Texas: A Grape State

Due to increased consumer interest and a string of changes in local and statewide rules, the Texas grape and wine industry has experienced rapid growth in the past several years. According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, there were 43 wineries in the state in 2000. Today, there are almost 190.

 

The industry’s future “is very promising,” says Tim Dodd, director of the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University. He points out that currently only about 40 percent of wine made in Texas comes from Texas grapes. “They (state wineries) want Texas grapes, but we just don’t grow enough ... yet,” he explains.

 

By identifying the best practices and bringing experienced and new grape growers together, the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) hopes to change this shortfall. “We’re really focused on minimizing reliance on non-Texas grapes,” says Gene Estes, the organization’s president.

 

In 2005, the Texas Legislature voted to allocate $2 million annually for marketing, education and research for the industry. By making efforts like those of the TWGGA possible, this support has boosted growth while helping to ensure the industry’s future. In 2007, the economic impact of the Texas wine and grape industry was estimated to be $1.35 billion, an increase of 35 percent in just two years.

 

In considering the future of the Texas wine and grape industry, Dodd points to two more statistics: 1. Only 5 percent of all wine sold in Texas is from Texas; and 2. Texans lag behind the national average in wine consumption—ranking 32nd per capita. Dodd and others in the Texas wine and grape industry hope to change both figures.

 

“We have a lot of ability to grow the in-state market,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time for grape and wine producers in Texas.”

A view from a plane above Meadow during the growing season would reveal a characteristic patchwork of circles, most one quarter to half a mile wide, formed by center-pivot irrigation systems that pump and turn almost continuously. But even with all of the natural advantages that the High Plains has to offer, running a family farm is no easy prospect. Economy of scale is everything, Cliff says, noting what he sees as two basic choices: Run a large farm that’s finely tuned in efficiency or enter a niche market. His family, he says, is doing a little of both.

“God has blessed us,” says Cliff, a member of Lyntegar Electric Cooperative. “But in business terms, I think our success has been through good marketing. We are always trying new things and have been lucky to find some niche products.”

More prepared than many for modern farming, Cliff, now 50, earned a degree in business and a minor in entomology from Texas Tech University before he started co-managing the family farm with his father, Eddie, in 1982. “I knew I wanted to farm, and a farmer needs to know business,” Cliff says. But he jokes that his real lessons in business came in his first year.

“We found ourselves $15,000 in the hole,” Cliff explains. Since then, his patient and deliberate manner and long-term vision have helped Bingham Family Vineyards & Farm anticipate trends and prosper.

Cliff’s great-grandfather Noah Bell was one of the first to settle the region. He staked claim to his homestead around 1900 and soon grew cotton, wheat and sorghum as cash crops. Today, Cliff and his family still work some of the same land. The bulk of their 2,000-acre family operation is planted in organic cotton, followed by organic peanuts, organic sesame and, most recently, grapes.

Day-to-day operations are handled by Cliff, his wife, Betty, other family members and three full-time employees.

Over the years, the Binghams have experimented with a variety of crops and planting ratios. In 1991, the farm made the transition to organic production—a decision that was part business and part stewardship.

“I’m a conscientious capitalist,” explains Cliff. “I need to make a good profit but also want to do what’s good for the soil.”

This move to organics has helped keep income per acre high and maintain a workable scale for the farm.

“Margins for chemical cotton production are very small,” Cliff explains. “We would need to farm three times the acreage to realize the same profits.” Unlike cotton, organic grapes don’t demand a premium, so for now, Cliff has not sought an organic designation for his vineyards.

Not content to be completely at the mercy of market forces, Cliff helped found the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative—an affiliation of roughly 25 farmers from the region—and served as president from 1993-2003. After years of collective effort to develop a market for organic cotton, profits have been strong in the past eight years.

But even as his goals for establishing a price point for organic cotton were being realized, Cliff was looking to the future. What he saw was grapes.

“Pumping levels from our wells fall year after year,” Cliff explains. “We are at about 50 percent of the capacity we had 30 years ago. We looked for a commodity that would bring in better income for the water used.” Considering water use alone, Cliff estimates grapes are 10 to 15 times more profitable than any other cash crop he could grow.

Morning people
Morning offers the best chance for photographing Cliff, Betty and most of their 11 children. Only the elder three, who are grown but still live on the farm, are missing. Everyone else is in and around the kitchen at 7:30 a.m., but it is surprisingly orderly. Cliff and Betty have just returned from Dallas from a “Twitter wine tasting”—an event where the participants send out their impressions via Twitter to selected wine buffs after each new wine is sampled. Betty talks about the family blog site (www.bing

hamfamilyvineyards.com) and their desire to promote Texas wines and organic crops. “People who enjoy wine often enjoy seeing pictures of the grapes growing,” says Betty. “There is such a void of knowledge between urban and rural areas. The site lets us share a slice of country life with city people.”

Though the first vines were planted only six years ago, grape growing has quickly become a passion for Cliff and Betty alike. Now at 75 acres, the vineyard will add another 45 acres this year. The Binghams have found that unlike their other crops, tending the vineyard is a year-round occupation—and preoccupation. “Having a perennial is much more personal than a seasonal plant,” says Cliff. “When you walk out into the vineyard in the middle of summer and see clusters of grapes hanging down—there is something romantic about that.”

Cliff and Bobby have worked together to plan and grow Bingham Family Vineyards & Farm using “The Bobby Cox Method”—a comprehensive cultivation plan that includes planting rows at a precise angle to the path of the sun to maximize sugar production but avoid scorching.
We are now back at the house for lunch, and a few wines have been sampled. This is work for grape farmers. At the kitchen table, Bobby talks passionately about the potential for grape growing in the region. He explains how the aridity, the daily swing in temperature and the soil makeup in this part of the High Plains combine to make it ideal for growing grapes. He and Cliff are slowly, but surely, determining which grape varieties flourish here. Bobby describes a large swath in West Texas defined by rural highways. His movements are animated, his voice rising.

“If that were all cultivated,” he says, squinting one eye, “Texas could produce more wine than all of California.”

Cliff grabs a calculator and crunches the numbers. “You’re right,” he says, smiling.

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Jody Horton is a freelance writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.